Palace pageantry: why and how you should see the Changing of the Guard

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So many visitors to London are attracted to the UK capital for the pomp and pageantry its enduring association with the British Royal family lends it. Aside from the obvious buildings and monuments (Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Nelson’s Column and numerous other statues), one of the major historical experiences with a strong Royal flavour that anyone can indulge in – and do so daily and for free! – is the Changing of the Guard.

The once-a-day switchover of Her Majesty The Queen’s mounted guards in front of Buckingham Palace, it’s a ceremony that draws crowds every morning for its tradition, colour and sense of occasion. It features the Queen’s official troop of Guards, which can be seen at different times of the day at Horse Guards on Whitehall, itself the official main entrance to both St. James’s Palace and Buckingham Palace (dating back to a time when The Mall, which effectively connects the two buildings, didn’t exist). With guards based at both palaces, one group of them from Horse Guards replaces the other at Buckingham Palace, hence the Changing of the Guard.

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Usually provided by the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment (HCMR), the Guard alternates its members each day between Life Guards and the Blues and Royals. However, when the HCMR’saway for summer training, it’s instead filled by the King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery. Thenumberof Guard members alters too. When The Queen’s in residence it’s made up of an officer, a corporal-major carrying the standard, two non-commissioned officers, a trumpeter and 11 troopers; alternatively when she’s not in Buckingham Palace, the Guard’s reduced to two non-commissioned officers and 10 troopers.

But how will you, a London-visiting commoner, be able to tell if The Queen’s in residence or not? Well, it’s best to check which flag it is that’sflying on the roof of Buckingham Palace. If it’s the Union Flag (the Union Jack), she won’t be; if it’s the Royal Standard she’ll be in.

Now, to experience the ceremony properly, as opposed to pressing yourself up against the railings of Buckingham Palace and catching very little of the action due to alimited view, it’s best to start where the thing itself begins – at the entrance of St. James’s Palace (on Marlborough Road). Trust me, wherever you might be staying in or around London – even if it’s an executive stay in Heathrow– this is a rarely (properly) seen event and one to brag about when you return home. First, you’ll want to check the official scheduleso you’ll know what regiment you’ll actually be observing – and whether it comprises a military band or not.

The advantage of starting at St. James’s Palace is that you can witness the whole ceremony from its start – and then walk alongside the troops as they march from here for the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Indeed, because you’ll be approaching the Palace with the Guards as opposed to waiting for them there with the gathered throng, you won’t be caught up in the middle of the crowd and be able to work out the best vantage point to watch the ceremony culminate.

The climax itself, then,consists of the ‘new Guard’ coming face to face with the ‘old Guard’ and the senior officer of the former shaking hands and exchanging words with his opposite number from the New Guard, then proceeding into the Palace as the rest of the Guard fully ‘changes’, the two troupes swapping roles.

However, that’s not all. Should you head back to St. James’s Palace – where you’ll have started from – you can experience more pageantry as you watch the troops switch here too. And because there’ll be far fewer people about, you should get the chance to have your photo taken next to a guard for that priceless social media-boast-worthy moment. Who would turn down that opportunity on a trip to London, honestly?

This blogger certainly hopes this post has been of use filling you in about all things Changing the Guard and how best to enjoy the unique yet daily event, but if you’d like to be actually guided through the experience on the day, then your best bet is to sign up to a specialised tour – for instance, this tour is among those that come highly recommended. Just click on the link and see for yourself.

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